Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mystery of Marriage

The question of gay marriage, having already been broached in a number of places, has come to roost in Maryland (not that it is likely to be the last). Thoughtful people are divided about the right conclusion; I have been on both sides of the fence myself, and transitions have been at once painful and tedious; not a little rhetorical shrapnel has exploded, more than once, too close to my head for comfort. (Hoping to keep that shrapnel to a minimum, I repeat here that I am a homosexual myself, one who attempts to live chastely, in accord with Catholic teaching, which may be found in the Catechism, paras. 2357-2359.) What ought a Christian -- or any person of good will -- to think of the matter?

Marriage, says St. Paul in Ephesians 5, is a great mystery -- translated into Latin as sacramentum -- and has reference to Christ and the Church. This much we know from revelation, and this we could not have learned on our own. That marriage, in one form or another, exists in basically every culture and has roughly the same form and implications does tell us that it is a manifestation of the law of human nature, but it would tell us nothing of its mystical significance, as understood by the Catholic Church.

Now, it is an element of Catholic teaching -- one violated by ostensibly Catholic governments many times over the course of history, but never mind -- that anything which is known solely through the medium of revelation, and could not be known through human reason however consistently and persistently exercised, is properly the province of the Church, not the state. Only the Church has the authority to authoritatively teach those truths revealed by God and not known through any other medium. There are some truths which are not revealed at all, like the multiplication table, known through unaided reason; and there are some which one could reach through reason or through revelation, because both are adequate to produce the conclusion. Reason alone is the province of the state. Anything known solely through revelation is outside the state's ken, and it would be wrong -- a usurpation, a gross injustice -- if it attempted to enforce doctrines proper to the revealed sphere. Tendering respectful regrets to St Augustine, this is why the political persecution of heretics, although it has not always been adequately denounced by the authorities of the Church (though sometimes it has), has at any rate always been wrong.

Returning to the subject at hand, we are now in a position to formulate a right approach to the problem. Is the belief that marriage ought exclusively to involve one man and one woman, without any variation in the gender or number of the partners, something known only through Christian revelation, or is it known through human reason as well? If it is known through reason, then it is right and proper for the state to publicly recognize the fact, and enshrine it in law. If, however, this truth falls solely into the province of the Church, the state certainly ought to do nothing about it.

Viewing things through a strictly social lens, I believe it is safe to say that the sociological purpose of marriage has always been the begetting and rearing of legitimate children. (I specify "legitimate," because of course many societies have not only had hordes of illegitimate children, but turned a somewhat indulgent eye toward the manner of their getting -- on the part of the male, anyway.) For this purpose, most societies have deemed it necessary to have one man and one woman put in a permanent bond, a covenant, for the raising of said children.

There have been two major, conspicuous exceptions to this pattern. One is polygamy and the other is divorce. Both were tolerated for Israel under the Old Covenant, though Jesus Himself tolerated neither of them. But their genesis is fairly easy to see: the one, due both to the extreme predominance of men in the cultures where it prevailed, and possibly to a shortage of men on account of wars and so on; the other, because people often get tired of each other and want somebody else, and most societies have seen fit to enshrine the fact in law. (I am not here addressing the question of marriages that are invalid in themselves, and are therefore eligible to be broken up through annulment -- a formal declaration that there was no valid marriage in the first place -- rather than divorce. Msgr. Ronald Knox, a contemporary of C. S. Lewis, has an excellent bit on the subject in his sermonic collection In Soft Garments; but this issue, while interesting, is beside the point.)

Both, however, share premises with the view which our Lord says was "from the beginning" -- that is, an element of the law of human nature, which every sin departs from. Lewis puts it best when, somewhere in Mere Christianity, he says, "Men have disagreed over whether you ought to have one wife or four. But they all agreed that you shouldn't simply have any woman you liked." Both polygamy and divorce are clearly declensions from, not mere alternatives to, the ideal of a permanent covenant between one man and one woman. They rely on monogamous marriage for sense to be made out of them. Polygamy literally consists in multiple marriage covenants made severally -- the man and all his wives were not part of one covenant; he simply had multiple individual marriages. Divorce, even more obviously, depends on marriage for its existence, since it is the destruction of marriage.

A homosexual pair, for reasons I hope I need not elaborate in much detail, cannot produce offspring no matter how theoretically fertile one or both of the parties. It therefore cannot constitute a marriage in the sociological sense we have been dealing with.

But what of the other significances of marriage? After all, even hardline conservative Catholics rarely insist that begetting children is the only reason for marriage. True; and it is, in fact, Christianity itself which set forth those other reasons. "Mutual society, help, and comfort that one ought to have of the other," as the Anglican rite has it (or used to have it -- one can hardly keep pace with the fluctuation of their traditions) is something we can see through reason, but of course that is scarcely specific to marriage; indeed, if marriage were our only source of society, help, and comfort, life would have come to a parlous pass. As for being in love, eros in the strict sense, attitudes to that (Catholic or otherwise) have been consistent through time and space only in being at variance. Everything from ranking eros nearly among the virtues, to making it practically a vice, to devout indifference about the whole question, have prevailed; there's no good seeking a consensus down that road. Nor has there, until very recently -- the last century or two at most, I believe -- been any attempt to regard eros as intrinsically connected to marriage, and many people, from swooning poets in the twelfth century to frivoling cynics in the twentieth, have regarded eros and marriage as positively irreconcilable. It is only Christianity that has elevated marriage from a covenant focused simply on progeny to a sacrament, mystically setting forth the relation between Christ and the Church. So if we trust the Church to tell her that there is something more to marriage than children, what grounds can we offer for not believing her when she tells us what the something is?

Of course, we might argue that we merely happen to agree with the Church for other reasons, but in that case we had better have some solid arguments to hand when asked why we wish to define marriage in a way that -- for better or worse -- has never been done by any human society in history. (This is not to say that there have never been societies which were highly tolerant of homosexual behavior, but that is another matter.) If we happen to feel (or wish?) that marriage is just a symbol of our love, fine; but why should the government be compelled to bestow any legal status on a private romance? If it is a pragmatic question of inheritance and visiting rights in hospitals and the like, naturally people ought to be able to make out their wills as they please and see whomever they like when they are sick, but reinventing marriage is not precisely the obvious solution. If it is a matter of the right to adopt children, I fear I must say, frankly but without relish, that I do not support it; not because I expect lesbians or gay men to be bad parents -- not in the least -- but because, psychologically, a child needs both a father and a mother; to deprive them of either causes quantifiable psychological detriment, as anybody can see from the results of single parent families, rapid successions of partners, and the like.

Perhaps the most troubling dimension of the whole discussion, though, is the determination on the part of some (not all) gay activists to have the question decided without discussion. Not legal discussion, of course that will take place. But one argument that I, at any rate, have frequently heard upon the lips of fellow homosexuals is that lesbians and gay men deserve the right to get married, period. End of talk. To even raise the question, with such people, constitutes bigotry.

That, no person of integrity and respect for others ought to countenance. Those who are deeply convinced that their position is right should not need to bully people: only to state the facts and exhibit their implications, clearly, logically, and calmly. A phrase from the Second Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, is very much to the purpose: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." I refuse to agree that any alteration of one of the fundamental building blocks of any human society -- perhaps the single most fundamental building block -- should or can be accomplished, or even halted, without an honest investigation of the realities behind the current state of affairs, and the implications of the change being considered.

That such implications are too little considered is, I think, adequately illustrated by the fact that Catholic Charities in the District was forced to shut down its adoption and foster care services after the passage of the new laws on marriage -- not because it objected to the laws, but because those laws would have compelled such organizations to provide services to lesbian and gay couples as well, even if such services violated their religious beliefs. One of my great disappointments with the gay movement generally is that, in its understandable (and, with qualifications, laudable) desire to establish equality and liberty for homosexuals, it does not seem prepared to look closely nor to keep a strict conscience when it comes to recognizing other people's liberty and equality. That is not right.


  1. John Paul II's Theology of the Body delves even deeper into the Sacrament of Marriage as a demonstration of God's love i.e. the Triune love that exists within the Trinity. He also delves into the spiritual dimensions of marriage that go beyond just the gift of children and looks into the sexual act itself as a total surrender and gift of self. I highly recommend this very dense work. The Theology of the Body Institute www.tobinstitute.com in PA has been working to spread the gift of this message to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

  2. "...but because, psychologically, a child needs both a father and a mother; to deprive them of either causes quantifiable psychological detriment, as anybody can see from the results of single parent families, rapid successions of partners, and the like."

    I'm pretty sure none of the child psych research has been able to show any difference between children emotionally or developmentally based on the sexual orientation of their parents. Most damage seems to be caused by the instability that single parent or divorced parent households put kids through.

  3. I'd like to preface this by saying that your argument is, as always, well thought out and eloquent, and that your call for calm, reasoned discussion is one that should probably replace the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools (Americans seem to have relatively little difficulty with allegiance, but indeed great difficulty with placid, intelligent discourse). That said, there are a few points upon which I would like to prod your argument a bit.

    First, I think you have given too little space to the importance of the legitimacy of children conferred by marriage. As a fellow classicist, you know that marriage in Greece and Rome served largely to unify families; this was true on a very small scale at the level of independant farmers, and a very large scale at the level of Patrician Gentes. Regardless, the children per se are not the important part of the marriage: as you say, children are plentifully available without the institution. The children are important because they unify the interests of the two families, serving as a sort of pledge that the two factions will act towards each other in good faith. This approach continued into the 20th century, as the degree of consanguinity between European monarchs displays.

    I mention this not to disagree with your conclusion that marriage, when used to such ends, must necessarily encompass only a man and a women. Certainly it goes a long way towards explaining why homosexual marriage did not occur historically. However, I disagree that "[a homosexual pair] therefore cannot constitute a marriage in the sociological sense we have been dealing with." You've created a bit of a circular argument: you're starting with a historical record of societies wherein no homosexual marriage took place, and arguing that homosexual marriage is therefore sociologically inviable. Truly, in the historical socities without any homosexual marriage, homosexual marriage is inviable, but that does not mean that modern society is constrained by the same bounds, patterns, or necessities.

    This leads me to the second point to be prodded (I wish English had a more elegant future passive participle). You claim that "It is only Christianity that has elevated marriage from a covenant focused simply on progeny to a sacrament, mystically setting forth the relation between Christ and the Church." I accept that in Christianity marriage is elevated to a sacrament, but you have here left behind even your earlier nod to the importance of family groups and legitimacy. In point of fact, sacrament or no, the distinguished history of Europe as we have it suggests that the advent of Christianity changed the sociological reasons (and even many of the practices) of marriage very little. It is easier to deal with the aristocracy since details of their lives remain for us, and that aristocracy continued to make marriages almost exclusively for political reasons, and to break those marriages by means of the degree of consanguinity whenever they felt it advantageous to do so.

    Let me here come right out with what I have been suggesting: if Christianity changed marriage, it did so only by bestowing additional meaning (the impartment of divine grace) on the ceremony and institution. The roots of the word marriage significantly predate Christianity. Plautus uses the noun 'Maritus', and first century CE pagan writers frequently use the verb 'Maritare'. To my mind this indicates that the Christian Church has no exclusive right to the concept, name, or practice of marriage. Perhaps two men marrying do not qualify for the sacrament of marriage, and as such will not receive the impartment of divine grace attendant; that seems to me to be between them and God.

    [Cont'd below]

  4. I also believe that the sociological nature of marriage has undergone a radical shift in the past one to two hundred years, certainly in terms of American society. Very, very few Americans marry to form an alliance between the families of the husband and wife. Quite a few couples marry without the intention of ever producing children (whether that intention changes or not being beside the point). In our current time and place the sociological function of marriage has become precisely what your periphrasis (or quotation) of the Anglican rite suggests that it is: a covenant of mutual affection, aid, and struggle. How successful we are at upholding that covenant speaks not to the validity of the covenant or the definition of the word marriage, but to human nature.

    As such, I would say that the state should be allowed to marry any couple seeking to use the covenant of marriage by this definition, indeed by your own assertion of the respective places of church and state. Since you seem entirely in favor of the equal distribution of the civil benefits attendent on marriage, we need not quibble in the least on that front.

    There is one final point on which I must disagree with you, and on this one rather strenuously. You say in your tenth paragraph:

    "If it is a matter of the right to adopt children, I fear I must say, frankly but without relish, that I do not support it; not because I expect lesbians or gay men to be bad parents -- not in the least -- but because, psychologically, a child needs both a father and a mother; to deprive them of either causes quantifiable psychological detriment, as anybody can see from the results of single parent families, rapid successions of partners, and the like."

    Here, and only here, I am disappointed with your argument, for it is logically invalid. First, I would like you to present some sort of evidence for the statement that "psychologically, a child needs both a father and a mother." This would need to be a valid, longitudinal study done by an impartial research group over a vast array of income levels and social strata, specifically measuring the success (monetary? influential? happiness?) of children with TWO homosexual parents as opposed to TWO heterosexual parents. I am not sure that I accept your premise that single parent children are innately damaged or disadvantaged, but even if true it is invalid to compare "single parent families, rapid successions of partners, and the like" to two committed parents of the same sex.

    I must admit that, like you, I have something of a vested interest in the matter. My aunt is marrying her partner next month after nearly two decades of happy and devoted cohabitation, so I am afflicted with a natural bias. I have, however, tried to make my argument as logically grounded as possible, and for the degree to which I may have failed I can only apologize.

  5. To be clear Catholic Charities always served lesbians and gays involved in relationships - never was there a report where a person in need was turned away. DC CC did not and refused to, even upon DC city council begging, serve them in a manner that acknowledged their relationships and regarded them as an adequate family to direct a child to.

  6. The deacon with whom I work is in charge of marriage preparation, and he made a point back in the fall that I had honestly never considered before. It seems relevant to your essay here. He pointed out that it is only in the realm of marriage (and even then just officially witnessing its beginning, not its end by civil or canon law) does he have any legal influence. It's the one area where church and state overlap that I can think of, and it's contributed significantly to the issue of gay marriage. If religious officials had no power to conduct legal, civil marriages, then we would (as I believe Jimmy Akin put it) have two distinct types of marriage. You could either have both a religious and a civil marriage by going through two ceremonies, or you could have just a civil marriage, which could theoretically eliminate the necessity of forcing religious institutions opposed to gay marriage to conduct them. Then the difference between gay marriage and heterosexual marriage would literally lie in the type of marriage, not the type of people who have it. It would be the civil marriage that conferred legal benefits, not the religious one (so that religiously married people would probably also get civilly married). Thoughts?

  7. Last things first. I personally would be inclined to welcome the notion of having two different senses of the word "marriage," one for religious and one for civil use; but it isn't an adequate solution. The Catholic contention is not merely that gay marriage is contrary to her principles, but that it contravenes natural law -- i.e., the moral obligations of all people (not just Catholics), which will naturally bring about misery or injustice or both when violated. Catholicism doesn't really introduce new moral principles; what she does do is recognize a supernatural sanction for those principles. In consequence, assuming the Catholic perspective, gay marriage -- however appealing in some respects, and however much we might strive to bring about not stepping on the toes of those who object to it -- does not really serve the common good; it is, rather, a disservice to it; and, being an element of natural law and not revealed religion, is the proper concern of the state. (All that being said, the talk about "defense of marriage" tends to annoy me, not because I disagree with it exactly, but because I hear absolutely nothing about the natural obligation to reject divorce from those same people. Divorce is equally detrimental to the common good, equally part of the natural law, and ought equally to be addressed by those whose concerns lie with the family.)

  8. Now, to Aaron. First I must congratulate you on your magnificent equanimity. I would scarcely have managed the same in your circumstances, and am duly impressed.

    To brass tacks, then. Vested interests need not prevent us from an elementary discussion, at any rate. As far as the other purposes of marriage, I am certainly not concerned to deny them. But, as your own argument displays, those other purposes are founded precisely upon the presumption that the begetting of legitimate children is one of, if not the chief, purpose of matrimony. Children were of course available without it; but I tend to think that rather shows us another side of natural law, the proscription of fornication. For why wouldn't illegitimate children do as well as children born within marriage? Because they had no legal status, and were generally looked down upon socially as well. And why? Because 'that dark and secret place where thee he got' was, perhaps but half-consciously, regarded as immoral. The ancient world certainly took a pretty indulgent attitude toward it, but the very tone reveals that it was still an indulgent attitude towards a vice. C. S. Lewis, though talking about pederasty, says what I mean well: that the perpetual tittering of Socrates on the subject tells us a good deal more than the severity of Aristotle, for men never giggle like that except when they think they are doing something wrong. (Not very wrong; they giggle in other ways, or not at all, if they think it very wrong.) Both the attitude and the legal status of the child suggest that the begetting of children outside wedlock was, however indulgent the attitude of society, a recognized vice.

    In consequence, though I am grateful to you for keeping me on my toes, I cannot concede that my argument is circular. My argument is not that homosexual marriages never occurred and therefore ought not to occur, but rather that the universally recognized purpose of marriage is why homosexual marriages ought not to occur. One might, of course, take the view that all humanity has always been wrong on this subject, but in that case I am left wondering why you want its label "marriage" so badly, since you think so little of it; and I begin to say with Dr. Johnson, sadly, "Nay, sir, if you will not take the universal opinion of mankind, I have no more to say."

    Continuing. I regret that I did not sufficiently maintain my distinction between the Christian sacrament and the sociological reality of marriage. I certainly did not mean that Christians invented marriage and therefore have a right to dictate what it means. Indeed, Jesus Himself makes such a contention totally impossible when He says that "from the beginning" such-and-such was true about marriage, for Christianity has only been around a couple of millenia; and even if one took a young-earth view, that would still be just as long shy of the beginning. What I meant, rather, was that the Church was the only thing to start recognizing other essential (not merely practical) purposes to marriage, other than begetting children; and that if we reject her authority to introduce such essential purposes, while nevertheless insisting that children are neither the sole nor the chief nor even an essential purpose of marriage, we must explain what our grounds are. I explained that rather clunkily, but I hope I cleared up what I failed to make plain in the post itself.

    [Cont'd below]

  9. It is quite clearly the case that what most people think of marriage has changed in the last century or so. I believe this change to be seriously detrimental; indeed, I am inclined to think that many marriages -- whether or not they ended with divorce is for our purposes irrelevant -- have been mere shams, in which an alien substance has taken the place of the covenant and only the accidents of marriage remain. This may sound like mere moaning apocalypticism, but while the change is unhealthy, it is also reversible. It would be far pleasanter to feel no call to make a fuss; but poisons do not cease to kill when they become fashionable (which is why I've never been able to warm up to that gin-and-arsenic bar at Knox Road and Route 1 -- I mean, gin?).

    When marriage is divested both of its purpose and its permanency, it ceases to exist. It is sexual companionability, whether attended by eros or no, and whether dressed up in a ceremony or no. As a Catholic I would rather see couples living in frank fornication than pretending to get married, with all the falsification of the vows: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, unless someone more interesting comes along, or she wants kids two years later and I still don't ... Lewis, yet again, puts it well in 'Mere Christianity,' and there brings up the young person who spoke the vow only as a formality and never intended to keep it. "Whom then were you trying to deceive? God? That was really not very wise. Yourself? That was not much wiser." Yet the ceremonial is insisted upon -- without any of the intentions which the ceremony was specifically designed to express symbolically. Msgr. Knox put it quite cuttingly well: "You do something irrevocable and then revoke it."

    That marriage does really cease to exist when these things, fidelity and fertility, are removed from our understanding of it, can be seen from the statistics put out by the National Organization for Depressing Americans, or whatever center it is that does studies of things. Fifty percent of the time, the sham is exposed, and the false marriage drifts out into the wild blue yonder of the courts. This does not serve the common good, even if it seems to serve the common good of lawyers. The stability of the family, and thence of society in general, is completely thrown out of whack.

  10. [Cont'd]

    As to your last point, it would certainly be beneficial to have the support of extensive studies of children in two-parent families, both heterosexual and homosexual, with the breadth you describe. I have a sinking feeling that such studies will never be undertaken on the grounds that they would be homophobic. Incidentally, it strikes me as a little unfair that nobody troubled to study such things beforehand to the extent possible -- children, say, in the care of two aunts or two uncles only -- to find other whether that really was in the best interests of the child.

    But what I had in mind -- quite poorly expressed -- was this: that surely one can see, from common sense, that the father and mother of children set them up for understanding all the men and all the women in it. The family is the universe of a young child, and all of their subsequent understanding of the macrocosm of society comes from this microcosm, the inner sanctum of the family. If a father is absent, this will lead to distorted and inadequate notion of manhood, whether or not an extra mother is there to take his place; similarly an absent mother will damage the child's understanding of femininity. I don't mean their comprehension of social roles -- I do not take the contemptuous view of stereotypical gender roles that a lot of people do, notably in the LGBT and feminist movements, though I certainly think stereotypes more than inadequate -- but when I speak about a child's understanding of men or of women being wounded, I am thinking of things that we could all agree upon as unhealthy: for instance, with an absent mother, obsession with, hostility toward, or fear of women.